White Mississippians have a 60-year love affair with Jim Crow-era segregation academies, and some of them are determined to make taxpayers fund them.
The historic 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision made government-operated segregated schools illegal, but southern white parents defied that ruling by enrolling their kids in a slew of privately run segregation academies between 1957 and the 1970s. The construction dates of facilities like Central Holmes Christian School, Jackson Academy, and Indianola Academy reveal them to be the direct products of Mississippi’s anti-desegregation crusade. Student demographics of most of these schools have not changed much in 60 years.
The Hechinger Report used National Center for Education Statistics information to identify more than 35 segregation academies maintaining a Black student population of 2% or less. Almost all were founded between the telling years of 1964 and 1972. Some of them, including Benton Academy near Yazoo City and Carroll Academy near Greenwood, had no Black students attending in the 2019-2020 school year, according to the most recent data. This lingering segregation, while not overtly enforced through school policy, is achievable through exorbitant tuition fees. Benton Academy’s $5,000 annual tuition and Carroll Academy’s $4,600 fee are beyond what many local Black families can afford.
The fees are an effective brick wall to minority enrollment because poverty is deeply connected to race, particularly in Mississippi. Comparative maps identifying the demographics of white and Black poverty show an unwavering link between low-income population and African American distribution. White Mississippi leaders worked for centuries to keep Black residents impoverished and powerless, and today it is no surprise high tuition costs remain an effective economic lock for potential Black applicants.
Despite that de facto apartheid, white Mississippi leaders are managing to use taxpayer money, paid by both Black and white taxpayers, to subsidize it. In 2020, legislators amended the state’s Children’s Promise Act to allow individuals and businesses to write off a percentage of their taxes if they make voluntary cash contributions to eligible charitable organizations (ECOs) and Educational Services Charitable Organizations (ESCOs). This is money that would otherwise go to state roads, services, and public schools. But now segregation academies are getting a piece of the action, thanks to their ESCO designation. Taxpayers must now either make up the difference through higher taxes or fees or suffer the consequences of an underfunded budget. And Mississippi has plenty of underfunded budget to spare. Mississippi is the poorest state in the U.S., with nearly 20% of its population living in poverty. The state ranks third from the bottom among states whose population share has graduated high school. Funding per student from state, local, and federal sources was $10,240 in 2019, which was the lowest level per student compared to contiguous states.
Nancy Loome, executive director at The Parents’ Campaign, a K-12 advocacy organization, said Mississippi cannot afford to waylay any more money.
“What they are doing is intercepting these funds before they are deposited. These are taxes that are owed to the state that they are allowing people to make … to their private school instead of paying their taxes, and the state is giving them a credit for those payments,” Loome told The Lighthouse. “This is a lot of money.”
Loome is right. The Mississippi Department of Revenue directory reveals Magnolia Heights School, founded in 1970 (currently with only 10 Black students out of roughly 600), nabbed $162,000 in credits from the Children’s Promise Act—and that was just for the year 2020. They got an additional $395,000 in 2022 and a cool quarter of a million dollars in 2021, despite charging each student $7,600 a year in tuition. Wayne Academy, which is more than 98% white, snatched almost half a million dollars in 2020 and an easy $250k in 2021, despite charging more than $4,000 in annual tuition. Whether or not they know it, state taxpayers also prop up the 95%-white Pillow Academy, in the majority Black town of Greenwood. Pillow Academy grabbed $270,000 in 2020, as well as $250k in 2021, and $400,000 in 2022, despite charging highschoolers almost $7,000 a year, in a county where almost 50% of the Black population is impoverished.
Source: U.S. Census
Urban seg schools are also getting in on the action. The wildly affluent Jackson Academy took in a mere $37,000 in 2020, but found its big government footing in 2021 and 2022 and scarfed down $650,000 in combined subsidies for those two years, despite charging high school students a princely $17k in tuition. Brookhaven Academy Educational Foundation Inc., a funding mechanism for Brookhaven Academy, received almost $400,000 in subsidies in 2022, despite having only four Black students for the 2019-2020 school year. Brookhaven is 60% Black.
With the exception of only a handful of schools, such as the majority-Black Delta Streets Academy of Greenwood or the city of Jackson’s Magnolia Speech School for the language-impaired, the brunt of facilities on the Department of Revenue’s ESCO beneficiaries list for 2020, 2021, and 2022 are notorious segregation academies and their affiliated funding organizations.
Loome said she questioned legislators’ methods behind the funding.
“What is especially egregious about this Children’s Promise Act is that most legislators … were not aware of what they were voting on when they voted on it because the original bill … was a program to provide tax credits for donations to children’s homes that served children in foster care,” Loome said. “But then (legislative leaders) came back and, without the knowledge of most of the legislature, they changed the bill to take half of that funding away from children in foster care and give it to children in private schools.”
Senate Bill 1729 specifically seized half the tax credits allocated to foster care services licensed by or under contract with the Department of Child Protective Services and gave it to organizations “certified by the Department of Revenue as a job training, workforce development or educational services charitable organization.” This apparently includes white refuge Pillow Academy and its cohorts.
Loome added the tax credit started out as a $2.5 million diversion from foster care services in its first year, but legislators have since increased the voucher program to about $9 million. She said school vouchers are not popular among Mississippi legislators, so pro-segregation school politicians must hide the diversion from their comrades by couching it in last-minute appropriation bills.
“Every year since, without the knowledge of most legislators, they’ve brought forward those code sections and they bury it in a thousand-page bond bill, or some other unrelated bill, and they raise the amount of eligible tax credit,” Loome said. “And they do it at the very end of the legislative session when everything is rushed, everything is in conference and they’re right up against a deadline. Legislators aren’t reading a thousand-page bill to see what’s been added to it.”
Rep. Omeria Scott (D-Laurel), said she was furious at the deception, and described the legislators behind it as the same people who “feel that everything should be theirs to exploit, extort and enjoy.”
Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, said he was totally unaware of the tax credits and questioned the character of the people slipping them through the House and Senate.
“This process is built off respect and trust and if your word is no good then you’re no good, at your core,” Hines said. “We all know, in this [legislative] process, that bills don’t always end up how the intent was. Some of it just happens to fall into place like that, but some of it is probably done in a [deceptive] spirit.”
Hines said he and other legislators would “be looking for” sneaky tax credits in the next legislative session, which begins January 2023.